Cortana and the future of Digital Assistants

A friend on Facebook asked “Do any of you use the voice system on your phone, and if so, what are your common uses?”

I use a lot of the base functionality of Cortana frequently such as setting reminders to remember to take things with me when I leave home – or remember to do things when I get to work – or remember to buy something when I’m near a particular store – or type of store.  Lots of managing one-offs or things that happen infrequently – like a reminder to change the furnace filter in 3 months.

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It’s great for kids.  I can say “You can play at the park for 10 more minutes” and then quickly set an alarm to go off when the time has elapsed.

I use the package tracking a lot, and directions (though I’ve been using Waze a lot lately and it doesn’t yet have Cortana support on Windows 10 Mobile – and is unlikely to improve because Google bought it and they’re trying to drive people to their platform).

I used the flight tracking to great effect when I volunteered to shuttle dignitaries to and from the airport for a large convention.  I could tell people if their flight was delayed and knew what gate to meet them at.

I use it for a lot of math or currency conversions (“What’s the price of Bitcoin in USD?”). Also dictionary and info like “Who is the CEO of Cisco?” or “When did Facebook start?”.

Since I have Cortana set to listen, I might be buttoning my shirt while getting ready for work and say “Hey Cortana, will it rain today?” and I get the answer.

Those are all things with enriched functionality and results – but anything else fails over to a search which is just a head-start on how most folks would find the answer anyway.

Using Cortana with apps

Two really cool things is that some apps tie in to Cortana – so I can have the Windows Central app read me the top tech news headlines – or the Skype app start a video call with someone.

She even ties into my fitness tracker (MS Band 2) and shows me a summary of my day’s activities, etc.  Plus I can ask Cortana things via the mic on my Band and get the results on the screen – considering all that she can do, it means that there are a lot fewer reasons to pull the phone out of my pocket.

Also, if you have Windows 10 (as I do on all devices) I can use Cortana on those devices to send SMS messages from my phone without fiddling with it.  I’d closely watch this space – more on it later.  She can also send emails without ever opening up an email app.

She can be set to respond to “Hey Cortana” prompts on PC as well as phone – and if both devices are within range she’ll do the task on both but seems smart enough not to make two copies of the task.

I also use her to track news items on topics of interest to me – such as news about political issues, technologies, companies I’m interested in, etc… and I see it in a useful summary form.  It’s a really good nexus to stay informed on the things I care about.

In summary, I use it a lot because there are a lot of little things I want to remember – but I don’t want them cluttering up my mind or my ToDo list until I need to do them.  If I forget something, it’s because I didn’t take the time to ask Cortana to remind me.

The future of digital assistants?

I do wish I could ask questions of Cortana and have the result sent to people who either don’t have Cortana or have it and ask me when they should be asking Cortana (my wife).  Maybe a feature like “Notify my Wife when I’m heading home for the night” or “Remind my Wife to have the left front tire checked for leaks next time she’s at the mechanic” – or even “Tell my Wife the weather forecast” (she already knows that what contact info to use for “my Wife”).

I’d also like to see interop with Siri and Google Now for tasks like “Find a good place and time to meet with my friend John Doe” then it’d maybe find places half-way between us, at venues we both like, that serve the kind of food we both like and fit into our schedules.  If I had a real assistant that’s the kind of thing I’d ask him/her to do most – and none of the digital assistants can “have my people talk to your people”.

Also, it’d be cool if Microsoft used the technology they developed for PowerShell to allow Cortana users to hand off computing tasks to the appropriate machine for the task at hand.

From your phone you could instruct your desktop PC (or several different desktops and tablets) to work together on a bandwidth or processor intensive task – then only send your phone the result. 

This kind of thing could get the job done much faster and save power and bandwidth by matching the right devices with the right tasks.

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